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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, January 7, 2016


(Note to followers: the following essay was written a few years ago, so the style and presentation is a little different from my current habits.)

Quick Summary: Simon Magus, the Troll King, and Saturna, Lord of Misrule, are three evil sorcerers who desire to rule their native dimension, Magic-Land, a realm where the laws of magic, not science, hold sway.   When they learn of the dimension of Earth, where scientific law rules instead of magic, they cause the respective laws of each dimension to become transposed, so that the sorcerers can use scientific weapons to dominate the now-powerless inhabitants of Magic-Land.   The Justice League travels to Magic-Land, breaks into three teams in order to combat each of the sorcerers on one of Magic-Land’s three continents; when the heroes triumph, the spell is reversed and both dimensions return to normal. 

This story—the fifth Justice League tale, preceded by three appearances of DC’s premiere Silver Age superhero team and one issue of the regular magazine—is noteworthy on three counts (appropriate, since so much of the story is dominated by groups of three).  It is the first to have the League travel, not to the usual alien planet for their usual exotic adventures, but to a parallel dimension whose laws are different from those of Earth’s continuum.  Parallel Earths would later become extremely important during the entire Earth I/Earth II conception.   

It’s also the first Justice League story in which the heroes face a team of villains, rather than a single malefactor who hurls various weapons or catspaws against them.   But most importantly in my eyes, it’s the first time writer Gardner Fox, the Silver Age’s most mythologically-skilled writer, managed to use a Justice League story as a playground in which to let an assortment of mythic and folkloric figures hold sway.   Yet, despite the playful quality of the story, there’s a sense that, consciously or otherwise, Gardner Fox imposed an interesting mythopoeic order upon what might look, at first glance, like the usual grab-bag approach to mythology.

The most profitable way to mythologically critique comic books is first to draw general comparisons between the concepts used in a modern pop-fiction story like this one-- henceforth abbreviated as “SotSS”-- and similar concepts from archaic myth.   For instance, one would not ordinarily think that stories from archaic myth had much in common with Fox’s tale of parallel worlds exchanging their very natures.   But archaic tales have similar ideas; they simply aren’t expressed in terminology drawn from science-fiction.   For instance, if mythic tale-tellers want to show the world physically suffering from some usurping power, then such suffering shows up in the form of drought or bad harvests.  And in some cases, one can even find such thought-processes not just in stories, but also in festive rituals like Halloween and the Roman Saturnalia— two festivals that are obliquely referred to in the course of “SotSS.”

For instance, given that Halloween is traditionally a time that calls up otherworldly spirits-- which is to say, speaking broadly, spirits of the deceased-- it’s probably significant that the three sorcerers discover the Earth-dimension on All-Hallows Eve.   The other festival I mentioned, the Saturnalia, can be discerned more by clues than by overt mention, but as I see it, Saturnalia—the late-December Roman festival from which Christmas more or less inherited its time of celebration—is implicit in Fox’s story.   For Saturnalia was a time in which the celebrants themselves overturned the usual order of things, with slaves being treated like lords and vice versa, and where a commoner was often elected to be a temporary king (perhaps being slain in the end).   Further, the celebration took its name from the Roman harvest-god Saturn, whose legend was loosely grafted onto the myth of Greek Cronos, the Titan who was defeated by Zeus when he attempted to usurp the natural progression of the generations by swallowing his children.   The specific celebration of Saturnalia died out once Christianity held sway, but it seems that the same basic idea informed medieval Europe’s “Feast of Fools,” which carried on Saturnalia’s custom of electing a commoner to be a king, and giving him the rather-significant name of “the Lord of Misrule.”

With some of these concepts in mind, let us look at the three sorcerers who cause the dimensional usurpation in “SotSS”:

SATURNA THE LORD OF MISRULE:  The name of this character provides the central clue to the mythic concepts underlying “SotSS,” since that name includes references to both the Saturnalia and to the medieval “Lord of Misrule;” he is also foregrounded as being is the first villain to be encountered and defeated by two of the heroes (Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter).   Interestingly, though nothing in the story explicitly mentions the villain’s godly namesake, or any of the attributes of Saturn (god of the harvest, god of time), Saturna does hurl against the heroes two hybrid creatures—a manticore and a griffin.  It’s of passing interest that some analysts deem hybrid creatures in general to signify transitions of the calendar in archaic times, which might ally the character even more strongly with the notion of cyclical changes during the calendar year; an important element in many archaic myths.   Aside from this association, Saturna’s most important aspect—and one to be compared with the other two villains— lies in the elemental nature of his Magic-Land continental-domain.   This continent is called “Asgard,” though strangely artist Mike Sekowsky draws the villain as a Middle Eastern potentate, but all we see of this Asgard is Saturna’ hideout, which is in (to borrow from Green Lantern’s exposition-heavy dialogue) “the heart of this mighty rock cavern.” 

THE TROLL KING: whereas the other two sorcerers are given Middle Eastern apparel, the Troll King is a bushy-bearded Viking-type whose main resources, as heroes Flash and Wonder Woman discover, are trolls: some of which are giants, while others are dwarfs.   In Scandinavian mythology, of course, trolls are seen as the enemies of both men and gods, and mythologically represent man’s dark, inferior side, but they take on specific “Saturnalia” aspects when one knows that the word “troll” may be derived from Nordic “thrall,” meaning “slave.”   Thus “Troll King” might be deemed another way of saying “king of the slaves,” which gives the name much the same resonance as the title “lord of misrule.”   And while the name of the Scandinavian “home of the gods” was perhaps-whimsically bestowed on Saturna rather than on a fellow who would look more at home in a THOR comic, Fox gives the Troll King’s realm a name borrowed from yet another culture, calling it “Olympia” after the Mount Olympus of the Greek gods.   This “Olympia” is the conceptual opposite of Asgard. for while Saturna made his home in a cave, the castle of the Troll King is located, like Olympus, at the top of a mountain.

SIMON MAGUS:  Unlike his two partners, this sorcerer’s name has no strong connection with Saturnalia or its analogue rituals, but it does connote the same general concept of an evil entity that threatens to usurp the natural order.   Just as Saturn is a tyrannical ruler overthrown by Zeus, and trolls are the perennial enemies of the gods, Simon Magus is a semi-historical figure who may have opposed the orthodox Christian church on a number of narrative occasions.   In history, Simon Magus is said to have founded a rival sect of Christians called the Simonians, some of whom worshiped the magus himself as an avatar of Zeus.   In the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, Simon Magus attempts to buy supernatural powers from Simon Peter, but his most spectacular challenge to orthodoxy takes place in the apocryphal “Acts of Peter,” where Simon levitates before the Emperor of Rome to prove his power, yet loses out when Peter directs a prayer against Simon, causing the magician to fall to his death.

Fox’s Simon Magus contains no direct references to any of these stories; the most obvious reason for Fox to choose the name was that Simon Magus was the archetypal “evil magician” of Biblical times.  And yet, though there’s no way to know whether or not Fox knew that Simon had been worshipped as an incarnation of Zeus, the odd thing is that Simon is given a Zeus-like aspect.   Some may remember, for instance, that when Zeus deposes Saturn (in Greek, Cronos), Zeus then divides the world between himself and his brothers Hades and Poseidon: Hades gets the underworld (which essentially allies him to the earth beneath which his realm lies), Poseidon gets the sea, and Zeus takes the airy regions of the heavens.   And yet, some authorities also believe that the three brother-gods are all just aspects of Zeus himself (since Zeus was sometimes given unheavenly-sounding titles, like “Zeus Chthonios,” Zeus of the Earth).   

Certainly that is the case with Fox’s Simon, anyway. The three heroes sent to round him up—Superman, Batman, and Aquaman— find that Simon is “ruler of the air, land, and sea,” and that they must combat Simon separately in three different regions of his continent.   Superman challenges him in “his floating air-castle” (the heavens), Batman pursues him in a forest (the earth), and Aquaman, of course, battles him in “the depths of the Magic-Land oceans” (the sea).   However, there is only one Simon: he is able to disappear from the clutches of Superman and Batman when each of them bests him, but when Aquaman bests him in the ocean, he can no longer flee and must capitulate.   And to put the mythic icing on the cake, even though the Magic-Land continent ruled by Simon is seen to have elements of air, sea, and earth about it, its name refers to only one of those elements, for the continent’s name is—“Oceana.”  (The true mythic-nitpicker will know that, while there was no “Oceana” in myth as there was an “Asgard” and an “Olympia”-- sort of-- but that the name sounds a lot like "Oceanus." This figure was a Titan, like Zeus’ oppressive father Saturn/Cronos, and was thus one of the generation Zeus confined to Tartarus. In addition, the name was sometimes used to designate a gigantic “ocean-stream” that encompassed the Earth.

And what should one make of all these mythic details?  To be sure, none of them occurred to me when I first read and enjoyed “SotSS” as a young adolescent.   But now, even though I know they were not necessary to my enjoyment as a child, these details suggest to me that the story’s author was able, if only unconsciously, to encode a simple-seeming boy’s story with some of the deeper resonances one can find in archaic myth.  Such resonances may not mean a great deal to many readers, especially in a time when most authors and readers would not know Simon Magus from Simon Templar. Still, I enjoy seeing that at least one comics-writer read mythology deeply enough, poetically enough, to “overturn” one’s expectations on what a boy’s comic should be about.                   


A. Sherman Barros said...

Hi there, Gene.

Although I do greatly appreciate your more recent approach to expose your thinking about comics, I must say that I hugely enjoyed this earlier effort. It really illustrates the way popular culture has assumed the role that once belonged to myth, of building a frame of collective (dare I say, ethic?) reference under the guise of light entertainment. Well, not under the guise, as I don't think such role was teleologicaly chosen, but naturally, by the slow accretion of fictive experience subjected to the filter of popular acceptance for almost a century.

In that, comics are particularly well positioned, as they tell their stories, and update their protagonists along a hard-core/essential origin story and particular immutable events (in the case of Spider-man, for instance, the death of Gwen Stacy, the murder of Uncle Ben, even when the exact origin is moved from radioactive spiders to gene engineering or supernatural spider-gods) that is transmitted (through comics collections or compilations) from generation to generation.

And that's why one cannot help but feel that more recent comics are being cheapened by abandoning their dimension of fun in favor of more pointedly political (and therefore contingent) bent.



Gene Phillips said...

It's probably my Campbellian bent, but I've generally considered that fiction of all kinds has the power to tell a lot of the same essential stories told by myths: how societies are organized, why one sibling hates (or loves) another, what human bodies are like and what the gods' bodies would be like if we met them. The big dividing-line, as Northrop Frye pointed out, is that myth and religion say, "Such-and-such is this way," while fiction usually says only, "what if things were this way," or, if the author's a little more assertive, "I the author think things are this way." Frye pointed out in the ANATOMY that there is no single good word for all forms of literary art-- taking in for instance plays, poems and prose all at once-- and said half-jokingly that one was almost left to calling them all "hypothetical verbal structures."

The "hypothetical" nature, it seems, is what makes a lot of critics ignore mythic content in escapist art. If all art is merely hypothetical, they seem to say, then it makes sense to value only things that are either politically correct (which as you say is contingent on the person making that judgment) or that meet some formal standard for aesthetic excellence (which is a little less dependent on the critic's political leanings, at least in theory). I think this is because western criticism has never really had a word for "the symbolic discourse of fiction," what i"ve been lately called "the underthought." I've been thinking of writing an essay that blames Aristotle for defining the "theme" or "idea" as a discursive line of thought-- "the overthought"-- when in fact the themes of the best literature usually possesses both an overthought and underthought.

Comics have a particular advantage in terms of visual appeal. You can tell the story of a hero's origin in prose, and if it's a good one, it will stick in the mind to some extent. But *seeing* it realized through a particular artist's vision will IMO "stick" much better than a prose exposition. I suppose that the best cinema can pull this off as well-- certainly fans remember the "big reveal" of PSYCHO as strongly as they remember Ditko's torment-filled images of Spider_Man taking up his destined burden. But it's also possible that images from the cinema tend to "calcify" in the minds of the ardent admirers, while in comics, I think there's more appreciation for telling alternate versions of, say, origin-stories, as long as the result maintains some continuity with what's gone before. Thus as you say fans can tolerate different iterations of Spider-Man, Thor, or Swamp Thing, as long as the essence of the "underthought* is maintained. When that sense of meaning is perceived to be violated-- as I think probably happened in the 90's, when Spider-fans were irate over the "Spider-Clone" reboot-- that's where the spirit of tolerance ends.

I wish comics had made a better job of assimilating adult value-concepts without losing that "dimension of fun." Alan Moore's ABC universe gave it a fair go; a lot of those features were fun to read and had stuff for the adults to appreciate. Ditto the new MS. MARVEL, or at least the first TPB collection I read. But yeah, a lot of comics are still afflicted with a sense of inflated self-importance. I read just one arc of DC's BATWOMAN, and found that despite trading on all the Bat-mythology it really didn't have anything much to say, either in the overthought or underthought departments.